On Thursday 8 March at 5.15pm, an urgent housing meeting was held in Parliament Hall on South Street. In attendance were Patrick O’Hare, president of the Students’ Association, Roger Smith, Director of Residential and Business Services, Eleanor Feltham, Accommodation Advocate for the Students’ Association, Kathryn McCune, Assistant Director of Residential and Business Services, and Ailsa Ritchie, Deputy Director of Student Services. Unfortunately the Admissions department was unable to send a representative, citing the short notice of the meeting.
Unsurprisingly, Parliament Hall was almost full, with more than 120 students present, demonstrating the gravity of the housing crisis in St Andrews. The purpose of the meeting, as stated by Patrick O’Hare, was to attempt to give advice to those who had not yet found accommodation, as well as to explain more about the current situation and why so many people have been rejected from university accommodation this year.
Roger Smith began with a short PowerPoint, giving facts and statistics about the current accommodation situation for returning students. It was announced that for this year, 2012, there were 1588 applications for university managed accommodation, 80 more than last year. Meanwhile, although 1004 were successful, 535 were not. In 2011 380 were unsuccessful. Smith stressed that priority is given to students with special needs and also those in financial hardship.
He explained that the main problem facing RBS (Residential and Business Services) is that due to the increased number of applications to the university for next year, and the guarantee of accommodation to entrants, many returning students have been left without somewhere to live. He also explained what he called the “conversion rate”, that is, the ratio of people who are given offers to those who actually take them up. As this is obviously variable and out of the university’s control, it is hard to guarantee accommodation for returning students when the number of entrants is still unknown.
After Smith’s presentation, the floor was opened to questions from the audience, which were wide-ranging and at times challenging. Topics of debate ranged from the gradual decrease in numbers of returning students in hall, potentially leading to erosion of hall community spirit, to whether the university would be able to influence or communicate in any way with private letting agencies. One student asked how the university could justify making more offers to entrant students in the current accommodation climate, prompting applause from the audience. This was a salient point, illustrating the main concern of those present.
Many of the questions focused on what the university was doing, if anything, to help those who are still without accommodation. Roger Smith defended RBS, saying that the root of the problem lies with the Admissions department, and called the large amount of entrant applications for year a “blip” that was “unforeseen”. He also said that the university was actively trying to increase the amount of accommodation available, citing the addition of 250 more places in Fife Park Apartments in 2010 as an example, as well as the fact that the university is “actively reviewing strategies for developing additional capacity”.
Various people asked practical questions about what they should do now to try and find somewhere to live. They were told by Eleanor Feltham that there are different options available to them, including a list of letting agencies in Cupar that might have properties in or near St Andrews. This was met by frustration, as many people felt that these were not viable, long-term solutions to the housing crisis. Roger Smith also announced that in the next few weeks some people would reject their offer of university accommodation and this would therefore hopefully provide more rooms for those people who do not currently have living arrangements in place for next year.
The idea of making single rooms into doubles, or even putting in bunk beds, was raised by various members of the audience. Roger Smith said that this was tried last year and had in some cases been successful, although Ailsa Ritchie raised the point that bunk beds had occasionally been used in the past and had proved to be “exceptionally unpopular” with students. Smith stated that there can also be difficulties with HMO licenses and residences often have other restrictions.
One student asked a question about whether the letting agencies could be forced by the university to reopen their lists. Eleanor Feltham stressed that as they are private businesses, they are not subject to any such restrictions and can essentially do as they please, although she did report that the university has been trying to communicate more successfully with the agencies.
The long expected demolition of Fife Park was also discussed, with Patrick O’Hare answering that the Students’ Association had been lobbying the university to simply update the residence rather than replace it. The issue of price was touched upon at different points, with most of the audience complaining about the unusually high rent prices in St Andrews. RBS pointed out that Albany Park is only available to returning students with financial need and if Fife Park is updated rather than replaced, this will provide more cheap accommodation.
Jay Pritchard, a third year Chemistry student, said after the meeting that he felt that “nothing was achieved, and the accommodation services have badly let down the students who have turned up today.” His opinion seemed to be shared by most of the audience, many of whom shared their own stories of housing problems in St Andrews.
A spokesperson for the university told The Saint, “Currently the university provides accommodation for at least half of all our full-time students. Proportionately, no other UK university provides more directly managed accommodation”, adding, “this year we feel we must plan to accommodate 2090 entrants. This is because of the very real risk of volatility and an increase in uptake on offers of places.”
The spokesperson went on to state: “We may be able to offer more places in Halls to some of the 535 students whose applications to return to University accommodation were not initially successful. We are acutely aware of the stress and concern experienced by students whose applications we have not yet been able to accommodate. We are committed however to work closely with our students and colleagues in the Students’ Association to offer advice and assistance and to do our best to find all our students suitable accommodation.”
For more housing information, be sure to read the article by Tamara Stupalova, the outgoing SRC accommodation officer, entitled ‘Hall rent hikes demystified’, exclusively in next Thursday’s (15/3/2012) issue of The Saint.
Stupalova has also created a Facebook page to encourage students to lobby the principal over accommodation matters, which can be found here http://www.facebook.com/events/369214193100307/